What’s that you see?

Appearances are not always what they seem. Duh. The big dog, for instance, who looks like she should be tough, and who in fact has the UPS delivery driver convinced that she is a killer, is afraid of noise. Specifically metallic noise (like the pot lid hitting the kitchen floor) and farting noises, the kind you make by pressing your lips together and blowing “razberries.” The little dog, when he was still with us, looked like a funny little cartoon character who just sat around posing and being cute. That’s what he looked like anyway. Different story when you went to put a leash on him, put his food on the ground, sit on the couch after nine or myriad other behaviors that did not meet with his approval. With dogs, with people, with lots of things it just isn’t as simple as what’s on the surface.

It is easier to make assumptions based on what you see than to take the time to understand the situation. The fact is we don’t really have the time to pause in everything we do and deeply understand all aspects of what is going on. Also our brains don’t work that way. We work based on evolved efficiency, processing situations unconsciously to determine safety before we can even comprehend what the totality of the situation might be. That works really well if there are large animals roaming your neighborhood that want to eat you, it’s a little more challenging if you live in a complex environment that relies on subtlety for interaction not just instinct. The problem is that we frequently get it wrong, and what we believed to be true isn’t; the behavior we are acting on is an old, instinctual fear that has nothing to do with the situation we are actually in.

Maybe it’s just increased media attention, kind of like is there more cancer or is there better detection so we find it more often, but it seems like there are a lot of unarmed people being shot by police. By a lot I mean basically any because really if you don’t have a weapon why are you being shot at all? Isn’t there another way to stop the person if they present some sort of physical problem, like I don’t know, tackle them or something. There has got to be something in between they kill you or they die when there is no weapon. But I digress. So when I see this in the news I wonder, what is going on that the reaction was to kill? We can’t know the whole story because there is only one person left to tell it, and we only ever know the truth from our perspective. That’s not a flaw, it’s just a fact. And witnesses we know are not unbiased, they have a perspective and a story and terrible memories – plenty of studies to back this up. So what is going on? What is the fear that is being triggered? How can we find a way to pause and get more information, because wouldn’t it be good to know a little bit more before someone ends up dead? How can we quickly challenge an assumption before someone gets hurt?

I was thinking about this because I was thinking about assumptions. I have a dog who is part Pit and a lot of people make assumptions about what she is like when they see her blocky head and barrel chest. The Pit regularly runs away at the first hint of anything that might or might not be danger. I was out with the big dog, she was playing with her friend up the street a smallish collie mix when the mailman rolled up. He smiled at the collie and said, “Hi Cassidy,” because he knows her and that is her name. Apricot stood a little away because the mail truck makes noise, but she was wagging her tail and doing the thing where she smiles but it looks like she is bearing her teeth. He slid the door to the truck closed and said to me as he drove by, “just in case.” In the time it took to close the door he probably could have asked a question. I know he has to be safe, I’m just thinking about people now and you know, you can’t ask a question of someone who isn’t alive.

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